I don’t know the history or provenance of the Old School Renaissance movement, though it seems from the recent rash of “two years old today” posts to be about 2 years old. No-one in that part of the blogosphere is writing their own history, because they’re too busy writing hagiographies of Gygax et al, but while they may not be too interested in talking about how their movement started they do seem to be very fond of developing their own systems, essentially versions of their preferred flavour of original D&D. This is a pretty interesting project, not least because it’s hard to see how you can have versions of such a simple game – but they’re a creative bunch and I’m sure they can find ways.
This development process presents an interesting phenomenon, as does the renaissance approach to D&D generally. Compared to modern games D&D is very stripped back, and the people playing it in the OSR have gone back to it because they think of this as a good thing. They’re all big on house ruling too, and when they started this OSR process they seemed to have a few common views about a few aspects of the game, particularly to do with skills. The OSR generally rejected skill systems, there was a lot of objection to the thief class and the trend towards “role protection” that it started, and a general belief that all the mechanics of the thief class – picking pockets, disabling traps, finding secret doors, climbing walls, opening locks – should be handled by GM/player interaction. There’s still a lot of talk on OSR blogs about how crap skill systems are and how they should be avoided.
My view of the skill system issue is that skill systems are an essential part of a good role-playing system, and a really important part of making the game flexible and enjoyable for everyone. Sure, if you’re a mechanically-inclined or educated person who is good at arguing with the GM and imagining technical details on the spot then you can do this type of interaction, but in general players aren’t expected to know about the thing their PC is doing. It’s worth noting too that the players don’t have to be ignorant of these things to fail continuously in game – it just requires the GM to be ignorant. I could, for example, run a game in a modern military setting, with all combat mechanics handled through GM-player interaction, and even if my players were soldiers the game would be a disaster because I would be required to pass rulings on something I know nothing about. That’s why skill systems were invented. Recently, I read an OSR blogger referring to this process as “ask mother” gaming, and it’s true – rulings not rules is a nice idea in theory, but in practice it just leads to a bunch of crap decisions by some guy who knows no more about anything than you do, which given the nature of most gaming groups leads to a lot of arguing and not much fun.
Original D&D had a skill system, of course, but the OSR don’t want to admit it (actually, a few of them do, like at Robertson Games). Combat is clearly a skill system, but outside of this there was the skill of find secret doors, find traps, etc. This can be presented as an act of DM fiat – you roll a 1 on a d6 and you find the door – but in reality it’s just a 6 rank skill system, with racially-based differences in starting rank (e.g. for Dwarves) and no improvements. i.e. it’s an arbitrary and naff skill system, which had the designers any precedents for thinking about, they would have extended to 2d6, applied to a wider range of skills, allowed attribute bonusses on, and given ranks in. They didn’t because D&D being the original game was arbitrary and naff, and needed a lot of exposure to players and their incessant, unreasonable demands before it could become good. It’s worth noting too that a task resolution system based on “GM sets a percentage chance of success, adjusted for how you approach the problem and your class” is a skill system of sorts, with heavy flavours of arbitrarity and stunting. So in subsequent years, game designers (including TSR) developed new and better skill systems to encompass all the things they discovered their players wanted to do, and GMs didn’t want to adjudicate on. My contention is that this is a natural development in the game, in which the rule systems were modified to do what the vast majority of players want them to do; it’s inevitable and good .
If my theory about the development of the game is correct, open-minded people playing the original games will begin at some point to house rule in proper skill systems as a natural development of the game. So here’s the natural experiment: how long do people have to play Old School D&D for before they run into all these problems, and start developing a functional skill system, superior to the original, which handles all the things they’ve realised players want to do and GMs are uncomfortable adjudicating on?